Florida Politics

Boston lawyer’s donation accusations badger Bondi

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, right, and Gov. Rick Scott thank first responders who assisted during Tropical Storm Colin in a visit to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Tuesday, June 7, 2016, in Tampa. Bondi faces her own political storm over questions being raised about her soliciting campaign donations from Donald Trump at the same time her office was reviewing complaints against Trump University.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, right, and Gov. Rick Scott thank first responders who assisted during Tropical Storm Colin in a visit to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Tuesday, June 7, 2016, in Tampa. Bondi faces her own political storm over questions being raised about her soliciting campaign donations from Donald Trump at the same time her office was reviewing complaints against Trump University. AP

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s political troubles deepened Wednesday when she was slapped with three complaints accusing her of unethical conduct for soliciting campaign donations from Donald Trump while her office was reviewing consumer complaints against Trump University.

The complaints were filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics, Florida Elections Commission and Florida Bar by J. Whitfield Larrabee, a Boston lawyer who said he acted after reading news accounts of Bondi’s having solicited a $25,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump Foundation in September 2013.

In his Bar complaint, Larrabee accused Bondi, an attorney, of violating rules of professional conduct that prohibit dishonesty and fraud.

“Pamela Bondi’s actions suggest a conflict of interest and create the appearance of impropriety,” Larrabee wrote.

“As a voting member of the public, I didn’t like what was going on,” Larrabee told the Herald/Times.

Larrabee’s Bar complaint also cited a state ethics law that prohibits misuse of an official position “to secure a special privilege.” His elections complaint accused her of a “conflict of interest, impropriety, sale of office and possible acceptance of a bribe.”

The complaint also accused Bondi of accepting campaign money from a tax-exempt charity, the Trump Foundation, that is prohibited from making political contributions under the federal tax code.

Bondi’s political committee, called Justice for All, deposited the $25,000 check in September 2013, but returned it in March after discovering that it came from a tax-exempt charity that is prohibited from making political donations.

However, the Trump Foundation did not accept it, according to Nancy Watkins, a Tampa accountant and treasurer of Bondi’s committee.

Watkins told the Herald/Times Wednesday that the foundation alerted the IRS to the problem and that Trump wrote a $25,000 personal check to the foundation covering the amount of the donation to Bondi.

The Washington Post reported in March that the foundation discovered its mistake after a group complained to the IRS.

Watkins said the Trump Foundation voided the original check that she returned, and that made it worthless, which is why the refund does not appear as a transaction on the committee’s finance reports.

“It’s not a reportable transaction,” Watkins said.

Watkins emphasized that it’s not a violation of the tax laws to accept a disputed check from a charity, and said the state ethics and elections commissions have no jurisdiction over actions by charitable organizations governed by federal tax laws.

The web site of Larrabee’s law firm describes him as “a trial lawyer working to hold powerful corporations and wealthy insurance companies accountable to ordinary people,” and says he handles cases involving sexual and racial harassment and Medicaid and Medicare fraud.

Larrabee, 55, said he’s not registered with either political party and said he has no business or political ties to Florida.

Bondi issued a one-sentence response to the complaints.

“These attacks are without merit and I am confident it will be shown they have no basis in fact,” she said.

Bondi’s personal solicitation of a $25,000 donation from Trump was confirmed by a political advisor, Marc Reichelderfer.

In a statement to the Herald/Times on Tuesday, Bondi avoided any discussion of the money and said any inference that she dropped an investigation of Trump University was false.

“My office has made public every document on this issue, which shows no one in my office ever opened an investigation on Trump University, nor was there a basis for doing so,” Bondi’s statement Tuesday said.

Her office said consumer complaints about Trump University were forwarded to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office had already begun investigating the school’s sales practices.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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